13 May 2012

The Original Argument

A Tale of Two Becks
Several years ago, I was out and about on a Saturday and happened to turn the radio on to the talk radio station. (I know. I’m somewhat masochistic like that. When I feel I’ve been particularly sinful I may even make myself listen to 15 minutes of Sean Hannity for penance.) The voice that greeted me on the radio was one I was unfamiliar with during my weekday perusals of the station. In fact the person was talking about American history and showing a clear understanding of the motivations and thoughts of the founders and a clarity of expression unusual in the typical Straw-Man-ing, Red Herring-ing, Ad Hominem-ing talk radio hosts. He was also witty and clever, which are plusses in my book. At the commercial, I learned that this man’s name was Glenn Beck. Cut to a few months later. I was in a restaurant and saw on the television a red-faced man in histrionics raving like a lunatic and weeping openly into the camera. “Who is this loser?” I thought. I soon learned, via box at the bottom of the screen, that his name was Glenn Beck as well, which I thought at the time was somewhat odd. You know, odd that there would be two conservative-leaning media personalities with the same name. Sometimes even now I have a hard time convincing myself that radio Glenn Beck and TV Glenn Beck are the same person. Beck can veer from the height of lucidity to the depths of insanity. Fortunately, it is the radio Glenn Beck that shows up for the book The Original Argument.

An Original Idea
The Original Argument is based on a simple premise: all Americans should understand the arguments and ideas that drove our founding fathers to pen the Constitution. It is not enough to know what the Constitution says, but to understand why it says what it says. From personal experience, I can say that I learned in my high school government class all about our bicameral legislation, our balance of powers and the roles of the three branches of government. However, I did not learn a thing about the great debates that set these structures in place and the reasoning behind them. At the school where I teach now, Veritas Press Scholars Academy, students in both the ninth and twelfth grades are expected to read extensively from the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers and to be able to discuss the differing perspectives presented. However, I realize that many people never encounter these arguments, and, even if they did, they would be put off by the archaic language. (I would be lying if I said that none of our students are put off by the archaic language.)

This is the premise that makes The Original Argument so intriguing. A selection of the most important Federalist Papers have been translated into modern English in a very faithful way so as to give modern Americans an understandable guide to the thought of our founding fathers. The credit for most of the work in this book goes to a young man named Joshua Charles who actually did the work of translation. However, as the name Joshua Charles is not likely to sell many books, it is Beck’s name that appears on the cover. Beck writes essays at the beginning of each section of the book summarizing a particular aspect of the Federalist Papers and also writes notes on each paper, showing the main ideas and issues dealt with in that particular paper.

The Papers

Overall, the papers are well-selected and arranged and are representative of the thoughts of the writers of the papers. The book is divided into seven sections, covering broadly 1) the vision of the constitution, 2) the delicate balance between a national government (which the federalists were attempting to avoid, by the way) and a confederacy government (which is too weak to accomplish what the authors say a government ought to accomplish), 3) The overall nature of the republic, 4) the balance of powers within the government, 5) the freedoms of the states and people, 6) the rights of the government with regard to taxation, and 7) the specific powers and limitations of the judicial branch of government. Beck’s notes on the papers and his essays are surprisingly nonpartisan, criticizing conservatives and democrats alike for departing from Constitutional principles and co-opting our nation’s history for personal gain. I appreciated his essays, and, even when I disagreed with him, I felt that the issues of debate were made clearer by his explanations.

As far as my thoughts on the papers themselves, I suppose I have to tip my hand here. I am an Anti-Federalist right up there with my Virginian forbear, Patrick Henry. I think the Constitution had and has many weaknesses, and that the writers of the Federalist papers were terribly na├»ve at many crucial junctures. For example, in paper 41, we read, “It is a fact of our political system that the state governments will always be able to provide complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the Federal government.” Why is this? Because the bulk of the military will always be made up of the state militias. There will never be a standing Federal army! That would be ridiculous!

In paper 44, Madison defends the article giving the federal government “the power to make all laws which are necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers…” When the anti-Federalists complained that this gave the government too much power, Madison responded with the idea that if we stuck to the Articles of Confederation, then the government would have no power at all. “They could have copied Article II of the Articles of Confederation, which would have prohibited the exercise of any power that was not explicitly given in the Constitution.” Showing how much Rousseauian nonsense Hamilton had imbibed, he argues that changing circumstances require the government to be able to accrue new powers to itself as time changes. Thankfully, the anti-Federalists won this battle and thus the 9th and 10th amendments to the Constitution were written. Unfortunately, the “proper and necessary” clause has been used by the Federal government time and again to give the government unconstitutional power in spite of the Bill of Rights.

These shortcomings aside, there is a great deal of thought in the Federalist Papers of which many if not most Americans are ignorant. This ignorance is shown in people who think the Seventeenth Amendment was a good idea or who wish to abolish the Electoral College. This ignorance is even better shown in people who have no idea what the Seventeenth Amendment is and have never heard of the Electoral College.


I wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone and everyone as an introduction to the Federalist Papers. I still believe that people should try to read the papers in their original language (after all, they were originally geared to New York farmers, not to some elite intelligentsia). Everyone should understand why our government is structured the way it is and what powers the Federal government actually has under the current Constitution. We need to understand that the American revolutionaries sought to create a nation ruled by laws and not a nation ruled by men like the French during their revolution. We need to understand that certain impediments were intentionally placed in the way of the government to keep it from being too efficient to the detriment of the people.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would love to see a similar book released based on the Anti-Federalist papers. Until that time though it would be great for everyone to get a copy of The Original Argument for their home library.

5/5 stars

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